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SPORTS EXTRA / SPECIAL PULLOUT SECTION: NBA PLAYOFFS

The Final Countdown

Rockets Don't Figure to Get Any Better With Age, so This Could Be It

May 07, 1999|MARK HEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

That was it?

As last hurrahs go, the Houston Rockets' season was pretty lame but don't worry, they'll try it again next fall, as sure as Hakeem Olajuwon and Scottie Pippen have contracts and Charles Barkley an understanding he'll get $14 million to make up for taking a pay cut.

Nor is there a Y2K curfew on this moldy oldie. Houston will be reprising it into the next millennium, since Olajuwon's deal goes to 2001 and Pippen's to 2003, when he'll be 37, and will finally have the offense all to himself, since Olajuwon and Barkley, who'll be 40, will--presumably--be gone.

But this is Houston, where impossible dreams came true in successive seasons, resulting in their 1994 and 1995 titles, and old guys still arise like mummies for the playoffs, so you never know.

Nevertheless, as the season wound down, it wasn't looking good. . . .

The Rockets had won nine in a row until they went to Utah on April 1, led the Jazz by 12 in the fourth quarter . . . and lost.

They had regrouped by April 18, when they went to San Antonio where they led by 23 . . . and lost.

They still led the Lakers by a game on April 21 . . . until they were pounded at home by the Dallas Mavericks.

Two nights later, they showed up in the Sports Arena, where Barkley disappointed local writers, refusing to laugh, sneer at or discuss the Lakers. "I'm worried about the Clippers, not the Lakers," he said.

He should have been worried about the Rockets, who sleep-walked through a 106-101 loss.

Then they went to Phoenix and lost by 24.

Then they beat the Lakers at home by 22, moving a game ahead in the race for the No. 4 seed again.

Then, when they thought the were OK again, they got thumped by the Mavericks at home again.

The next night, they lost at home to the Jazz, falling behind the Lakers, to stay, it turned out, finishing April 6-10.

That wasn't exactly how they envisioned it, when they won the Pippen sweepstakes and got so giddy, owner Les Alexander introduced him as "a guy who can bring us a championship, many championships," and even Coach Rudy Tomjanovich, who knew his starting front line would be 36, 36 and 33 and his starting guards would be rookies, said he was "the most fortunate coach in the league."

Even if he didn't bring it up, Tomjanovich says he also knew the compacted season, which would wear down his old guys and allow little practice time to break in his kids, would be a special problem.

Unfortunately for him, that was the prediction that stood up.

"We had some veterans, and then we had some very young guys who didn't know the system," he says. "So I thought the kind of season we were going to have after the lockout was going to hurt us as much as anybody. . . .

"This was about what I expected. I told our guys, with everything so condensed, the mental part of this season was going to be the toughest part. Some teams were going to splinter because of it.

"I know as a coach, it changed my life. You didn't have off-days to rejuvenate yourself."

This season isn't about rejuvenation but survival. Check the record, the Rockets are pretty good at that.

Looking for Mr. Pippen

The year after they won their first title--the one in which they faced elimination three times and won them all--they dropped to No. 6 in the West. After Tomjanovich broke up his champions, trading for aging Clyde Drexler, they were 17-18.

They were down, 2-1 to the Jazz and 3-1 to the Suns, before winning all five elimination games--one in Salt Lake City and two in Phoenix--producing a tidal wave of emotion they rode all the way to another title.

Of course, that was four years ago.

Says reserve Eddie Johnson, "If you look back on the championship years, Dream [Olajuwon] was Dream. I mean, he was younger. You're talking about the all-time blocked-shot leader in the league and he was swatting things out of there and changing a lot of shots. As you get older, one of the things, obviously, that goes on you is that quickness and jumping ability.

"Although Dream is still one of the best centers, if not the best center in the NBA, he's not as active at blocking shots as he used to be. So what happens now is, you have to have better lateral movement from your other four players and not allow guys to get inside the paint and get good opportunities at the basket."

Someone must not be moving his feet. When the Rockets won their first title, they were the No. 5 defensive team. Now they're No. 15.

In 1994, it was Hakeem and his little helpers. Then it became Hakeem and Clyde, the reunited Houston Cougars. Then Hakeem, Clyde and good-time Charlie, except Barkley and Drexler didn't get along, which was one reason it was a good thing Drexler retired after last season's hurrah turned into a 41-41 finish and first-round elimination.

Pippen offered new hope. Where Drexler put his head down and headed for the hoop, Pippen was used to running a team. He and Barkley were friends, on top of it.

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